Post-War Spencers

 

Spencer in the 1950's

 

These catalogues from the 1950's (four are represented from both the USA and UK) contain the essential foundation garments of the era. A light corset for the fashionable lady, a corselette and a maternity support (top row). On the bottom are a stronger corset, also in combination with a long-line brassiere (this might be a Spen-all; it's hard to tell) and a high-waisted fashionable girdle.

Advertising costs are rising and even the pre-War bunch of flowers has gone, leaving but one symbolic rose.

 

Corset Length

 

A feature that may surprise some modern readers was the sheer length of some of these corsets. Certainly, in the 1920's, the corset occasionally came so low on the thigh as to preclude ease of walking, but here, post-War, are some corsets, albeit of 'corrective intent', that are at least 20 inches long! (We have several corsets over 21" long in our collection and know of one Danish lady whose corset must have been close on 23" in the back. A friend has recently ordered a Spencer of the same length).

 

The construction and position of the under-belt is shown clearly on the left and featured in many of Spencer's corsets.

 

It can safely be assumed that the target age of the potential buyer was somewhat less than the models.

 

These pictures all come from the late 194's to late 1950's and are excellent examples of Spencer's lumbosacral corset.

 

 

Spencer in the 1960's 

The 1960's were perhaps the greatest decade of the foundation garment. Corsets were still widely worn, the girdle was at its height selling over six million a year in Britain alone, and the pantie-girdle became fashionable as tights were worn more often. It was the time of the Beatles and a massive social change, the ramifications of which we are only beginning to comprehend. One could attend a wedding where a 25-year-old woman might be wearing a corset and a 55-year-old might be in the latest pantie-girdle. Change was rapid and inconsistent, not least between the two sides of the Atlantic. I have no experience of America before 1980 and have relied on my research and hearsay; however, it does appear that pantie-girdles caught on much quicker in America than they did in Britain.

Spencer's offerings from both sides of the Atlantic are on show below, and whilst following the trend that one might expect, there are some surprises in store.

Of course the good old faithfuls remain (Spencer UK 1960), the model on the right centre being unchanged for four decades (and nary a rose in sight). One marked difference between the American and British Spencers is seen on the right above. In deference to the warmer climates available to, let us say, the 'Miami Matron', far sheerer fabrics were available in America. The engineering involved here is remarkable, where such a gossamer thin creation can have sufficient strength to mould a predatory widow into the shape of something far younger. 

   

Spencer's corsets (above) come into the realm of the surgical corset, and by today's standards these garments are formidably complex, however, compared to some of the surgical corsets of the 1950's, they were a wonderful alternative and could be fashioned in attractive materials as well. The contraption, no less complex on the right, is nothing more than Spencer's standard measuring garment!

 

Brassieres

In the 1950's, brassieres reached their peak. Sadly, four decades later, Spencer would unbelievably lose the patterns for their standard brassieres. They seemed to lose the plot as well, since the death-knell of the made-to-measure foundation had been ringing loudly since the 1970's.

 

Spencer catered for the sporting woman, and also for the party in the evening. The lacing on the 'health' brassiere (top right) is no decoration, it is real, and one could adjust the separation of one's breasts, perhaps as a tactic to confuse the opposition in a game of mixed doubles. For the party in the evening, the mandatory strapless brassiere was available.

 

Brassieres are tricky to fit. The options shown above are just a small fraction of the styles available. Conservative, moderate in Britain; ice cream cones and bullets in America!

  

  

 

In common with Spirella, when Spencer wanted the advertisement to concentrate on the brassiere, no girdle was shown, and the lower part of the model's body disappears in flounces of nylon and tulle.

 

 

Spencer In America

 

But what is this below? Can this image of the ideal American woman of the 1960's come from the same planet as the models above? She does,  but from the other side of 'the pond'.

From the US Spencer advertising of 1963, we see a character who would be alien to Britain for another decade. 

In Ian Fleming's James Bond novel Thunderball, the English female agent, Mary Goodnight, is advised by some Americans "Don't split your stays". An accurate reference to the difference in foundations across the divide of the Atlantic Ocean. (In the film of the novel, I doubt that Britt Ekland, who played Mary Goodnight, would have appreciated the irony). Not that the British were complete 'fuddy duddies', as the elegant garments below indicate. For years corsetieres had been selling the basic garments, and then, building on a successful relationship with a client, would suggest something for a 'special occasion'. The black lace overlays were beautiful but not cheap. I wonder how many husbands persuaded their wives to buy these garments. In the 1960's, it would usually be the husband footing the bill.

   

A strapless brassiere (obviously for a special occasion), and a matching brassiere and Spencerette girdle in the expensive but elegant lace overlay (Spencer UK 1963). The actual girdle was shown at auction and is a US Spencer from the 1970's.

But back to basics (below). The mirror is used to good effect and the reflection for once is real. Some women may bemoan the lack of rear suspenders. These suspenders were the subject of much grief and humiliation. They are really necessary to keep the stockings under control, particularly seamed stockings, and let us not forget the third purpose of the foundation garment:-- to hold up the stockings.  But rear suspenders are difficult to adjust and attach, one sits on them, and, all too often, an incorrectly attached stocking will come adrift when you least expect it.

  

The pictures above show that the corset was alive and well in the 1960's. On the left from Spencer UK in 1962 and on the right, from Spencer Canada in 1963. Even the North American matron expected decent support. 

What is really interesting above is that the garment on the right, although marketed as a Spencer, is called a '325', which is the Spirella designation for a front and back-laced posture corset. Spirella and Spencer got together in Canada in 1959, nearly three decades before they merged in Britain. This is shown clearly in two adjacent pages from the Spencer Canada catalogue of 1959. On the left page are the classic Spencer corsets and modelling garment, and on the right page the Spirella 300 series of corsets. In small print it states that the Spencer guarantee did not apply to Spirella! In American catalogues of the same era (1962), Spencer and Spirella garments appear together.

 

Both sides of the Atlantic marketed their own versions of girdles and corselettes which the majority of women would have been wearing in  these days.

 

Spencer shows their versatility here by displaying a girdle blatantly designed to minimise the waist.. Spirella, on the other hand, put the emphasis strongly on support without constriction, and 95% of their corsets echoed this philosophy. Spencer could do likewise, but also made corsets for the ultimate in tight-lacing, right through to fiendishly complex surgical devices that would force the wearer into the shape of a women, despite the afflictions of poor posture, lordosis and even pregnancy.

Corselettes from Britain in 1962 and the US in 1966. Atight-fitting US Spencer girdle from 1971.

   

Long-line brassiere, model 180 (US 1986) and a girdle from the same year and the same professional model, who seems to have been rather busy in this photographic session.

All corsetry companies had their favourite models. Mae West's mother was such a lady. The model need not have the currently fashionable look, but  instead, a good figure and quite some patience to get in and out of 20 to 30 garments per session. 

But change was coming and the third use of the foundation garment was about to be challenged. With the invention of tights, the need for a garment to hold up the stockings became redundant. The pantie-girdle was born. The garment might be boned, heavy and furnished with a zip entry, but the writing was on the wall for the girdle. 

The pantie-girdle never affected the sales of the corset. The damage to those sales was done by the open-bottom girdle and when the pantie-girdle came along, the generation that had decided to stay with corsets would do so until they passed away. It is interesting to note that Spencer in Britain today supplies a few brassieres and corselettes, but the majority of their work is to provide corsets for an aging but loyal clientele.

 

In the 1970's, Spencer's policies began to diverge strongly on either side of the Atlantic. In fact, so disparate become their wares, that I wonder if the two companies had separated, the only throw-back to the early years being in name only. This girdle above would never had come from Spencer in Britain. The front may be pretty with a rather neat, although purely cosmetic, double curve on the top edge, but that back is hideous! Boned elastic to hold in the waist is simply so uncomfortable.

The garment is called a 'Spencer Le Gant'. Whether a deal or merger with Warners (who marketed a Le Gant) had been struck, I do not know.

Pantie-girdles, models 220 and 280 from the US in 1963 herald the decline of the girdle and a new age of liberation, although by today's standards these ultra-long, extremely powerful girdles would not be considered thus!

 

 

Spencer US Catalogue 1962

 

 

Spencer in the 1970's

Amazingly, the end of this tale is still four decades away, and it may be that there is no end. In the 1970's in Britain, the names and addresses of Spirella and Spencer corsetieres were published in one large page in the telephone directory (this was before yellow pages). It was the only industry that did that. There were thousands of corsetieres attending to millions of clients and the old favourites were still being bought.

   

The posture corset from 1972 (UK) was still the mainstay of the older lady, however, her daughter was catered for as well; witness the pantie-girdle. 

 

and the lace overlaid girdle and elegant brassiere still found places in the drawers of the fashion conscious (1972)

 

Spencer from the 1980's to the Present Day

It may come as a surprise to many people that Spencer still operates in Britain in the year 2008. There are a few corsetieres to be found, although their clientele is aging, as are the corsetieres themselves. I have no photographs of this period except for the garments themselves, and this is simply symptomatic of the decline of the whole industry. Advertising of these garments basically died at the end of the 1980's and corsetieres had to struggle on with poor photocopies and old brochures from the 1970's. The beautiful swathes of materials vanished, as did the materials themselves. The last lace overlaid girdle was made in the 1980's as lace and satin was replaced by the hard wearing coutil. The primary garment was now a surgical support, shunned by the young but vital to the few remaining ladies who had been wearing corsets since the early decades of the last century.

As Spirella was taken over by Spencer in the late 1980's, so Spencer succumbed to Remploy and latterly to Thamert. By now, the purchasers of corsets were all elderly traditional women, to whom the idea of a Remploy tag in their 'lowers' meant nothing to them. Bowing to pressure, the garments were labelled for a while as Remploy and Spencer, and eventually under the Thamert dynasty, the Spencer label was returned to its proper place.

One of my corsets from the 1990's with the little regarded Remploy label, although to be fair, Remploy did make some rather sturdy garments in the 1950's (below)

I'm quite sure that this model hasn't been wearing corsets all her life. I suspect, in fact, that the photographic session was her first experience. Nevertheless, this is the last example of Spencer corsetry advertising that I can find. It comes from 1990. Details of the 'posture corset' and 'Spencerette' are linked and describe exactly what can be ordered today.

 

How times have changed! Above we see girdles from the 1950's on the left and a Spencerette from the 1970's. Lustrous satins and brocades from the 1950's, and pink nylon backed black lace from the 1970's speak of something more than quality. On the left is a Spencerette from 2003. The latter model is still an excellent and firm girdle with many of the classic details (right). Note the 'vestigial lacing' that sows together the front panel, the flap to accommodate a brassiere hook, and the individual number to identify the order. No sizes are on the label since all these girdles were, and still are, made-to-measure. But gone is the satin, albeit replaced by a long lasting and tough orchid nylon-satin. Sadly, this garment is now classed as a surgical support and thus is unaffordable without a Doctor's prescription to claim the ludicrous costs back from medical insurance.

 I received a charming letter from a lady who wanted to procure a corset for her 102-year-old mother. The lady in question must first have worn a corset in  about 1914 and considered herself "undressed" without one. There is still a supply, but every corsetiere whom I know will retire within a few years, and then the era may well be over.